This section is from the book "Meals Medicinal", by W. T. Fernie. Also available from Amazon: Meals Medicinal: With "Herbal Simples" Curative Foods From the Cook in Place of Drugs From the Chemist.
An old fable runs to the effect that Oysters rise to the surface of the water at the time of full moon, and open their shells to receive the falling dew-drops, which presently harden into pearls. For the "Prairie Oyster," 'put a teaspoonful of vinegar into a wineglass, and break an egg thereinto, with, or without the white; a dessertspoonful of Harvey sauce, a pinch of salt, and a dust of pepper should be added. Oysters were more common, and cheaper in England sixty or seventy years ago, than they have now become. Mr. Pickwick, in his journey to Ipswich on the Stage-coach, while passing through Whitechapel, noticed the crowded, and filthy street through which they were being driven. "It's a very remarkable circumstance, Sir," said Sam Weller, his servant, "that poverty, and Oysters, always seem to go together; the poorer a place is the greater call there seems to be for Oysters. Look here, Sir! blest if I don't think that ven a man's wery poor he rushes out of his lodgings, and eats Oysters for regular desperation." "To be sure he do," said Mr. Weller, senior; "and it's just the same with pickled salmon." Again, when on Christmas morning Ben Allen, and Bob Sawyer, two medical students, began the day, "One on 'em," reported Sam to Mr. Pickwick, "one on 'em's got his legs on the table, and is a drinking brandy neat; while t'other one, him in the barnacles, 'as got a barrel o' Oysters atween his knees, vich he's a openin' like steam, and as fast as he eats 'em he takes a aim vith the shells at young dropsy (the fat boy) who's, a sittin' down fast asleep in the chimbley corner." Further on, at Bob's supper party in Lant Street, the Borough, "the man to whom the order for Oysters had been sent had not been told to open them.
It's a very difficult thing to open an Oyster with a limp knife, or a two-pronged fork, and very little was done in this way. Very little of the beef was done either; and the ham (which was also from the German sausage shop round the corner) was in a similar predicament. However, there was plenty of porter in a tin can, and the cheese went a great way, for it was very strong".
The elementary composition of Mussels, Clams, Winkles, Scallops, and other molluscs (soft-shelled), is very similar to that of the Oyster; but these cannot be regarded as foods of equally important value, except, perhaps, as respecting the Clam, which some American doctors believe to have four times the food-worth of the Oyster for persons suffering from nervous prostration. This mollusc contains a large amount of phosphorus, in combination with earthy salts. Clam-broth is supplied in tins (by the Messrs. Fuller, London) as consisting of concentrated Clam-juice, an admirable medicament for strumous, and con sumptive invalids. It is a thick liquid with a strong fishy smell, like that of the lobster. For cooking it, take therewith one part of fresh milk, and a little fresh butter, and some ground white pepper. Heat quickly, but not to boil; and serve hot, with dice of toast. An enamelled saucepan should be used, and the broth sent up in a breakfast cup, or small bowl. The albuminates of the Clam are in a high proportion, being soluble, and not spoilt by boiling.
Celery is an improvement to the broth. "Allow me," said the irrepressible Sam Weller, "to express a hope as you won't reduce me to extremities; in sayin' which I merely quote what the nobleman addressed to the fractious Periwinkle ven he vouldn't come out o'is shell by means of a pin, and he consequently began to be afeerd that he should be obliiged to crack him in the parlour door".
Wedgewood, referring to the Periwinkle, Pennywinkle, and Pinpatch (a sea snail), explains the name as derived from the (supposed) Anglo-Saxon "Pinewincle," "Pinwinkle," or Winkle, that is eaten by the help of a pin used in pulling it out from the shell. "What capital things Oysters would be," said a wit, "if we could eat them ourselves, and feed our servants with the shells!" The principal constituent of Oyster shells is carbonate of lime, their remaining organic elements being phosphate, and sulphate of lime and magnesia, silica, oxide of iron, and alumina. Some cases of cure effected in cancer by a steady perseverance in the medicinal use of Oyster-shell powder are recorded on trustworthy evidence. The late Sir Spencer Wells employed this remedy for many such cases, and broached the theory that a starvation of certain tumours by lime slowly deposited in the blood-vessels commanding their circulation, may be produced thereby, and thus shrivelling up the tumours to extinction. To prepare the Oyster-shell powder, bake a quantity of the shells, using those which are concave (half a peck, or more), for three nights in a slow oven, then scrape out the small white part within each shell; powder these parts finely, and take as much of the powder as will lie, rather heaped up, on a shilling, once, or twice a day in a little warm water, or milk.
If an ointment is also thought desirable for external use at the same time, mix some of the dried powder with unsalted lard, or cream, quite fresh, and apply it. This treatment needs perseverance, sometimes tor three or four months, before its curative effects begin to be perceived. Abernethy, when on one occasion asked by a tiresome dyspeptic invalid what she might eat, replied, "Well! you mustn't try the poker, tongs, or bellows".
" ' Poker, and tongs, too hard you'll find, Bellows will blow you up with wind.' ' May I eat Oysters, Sir? ' ' Yes, well! ' ' And what besides?' ' Why, eat the shell.' "
"Il raisonne comme une huitre" is a French proverb, (corrupted with us into "mad as a hatter"): he "reasons like an Oyster".
At Midcolne in Essex, an annual banquet of gin and gingerbread is held at the time of the Colchester Mayor's Oyster Feast, October 25th. Sydney Smith, whilst in Edinburgh (1800) with his pupil, Mr. Beach, passed but few days without meeting talented friends in (what were then very common) Oyster-cellars, "where the most delightful little suppers used to be given, at which every subject was discussed with a freedom impossible in larger societies, and with a candour which is only found where men fight for truth, and not for victory. When Thackeray went to Boston in 1852, some friends asked him to partake of American Oysters; about the marvellous size of which he had heard strange reports. Six bloated Falstaffian bivalves were placed before him in their shells; whereat he gazed anxiously, with fork upraised, seeking, with a look of amazement, to know, How shall I tackle them? On learning the simple process by which the free-born citizens of America are accustomed to accomplish the task, he first selected the smallest one of the half-dozen (rejecting a larger one because, as he said, it resembled the High Priest's Servant's ear that Peter cut off), and then bowed his head as if he were saying Grace. Opening his mouth very wide, he struggled for a moment, after which all was over. "I shall never forget the comic look of despair he cast upon the other five over-occupied shells; and I then broke the perfect stillness by asking him how he felt." "Profoundly grateful," he replied, "as if I had swallowed a small baby".
In Sketches by Boz (Dickens, 1836), Scene XII, there is described: "A deal table on which are exposed Oysters, and divers specimens of a species of snail (Wilks we think they are called) floating in a somewhat bilious-looking, green liquid".
The Whelk, here intended, is still a familiar edible with the people as seen on the huckster's stall, in common with the Winkle, about poor streets in our towns. Colouring matter may be squeezed out of the Whelk, this being at first almost colourless; but by the action of light it shortly turns to a citron tint, then pale green, next emerald green, azure, red, and finally, in about forty-eight hours, to a magnificent purple hue; but it must not be allowed to become dry during the experiment. This colouring matter has been found highly useful for curing congestion of the womb, and for obviating insipid (sugarless) diabetes. Uric acid exists in these shell-fish, within a sac, which is the first rudiment of a kidney; and the uric acid obtained therefrom may be transformed into a purple of great beauty, "purpurate of ammonia," similar in all probability to the famous Tyrian purple of old. Both this humble mollusc, and its stall-companion, the common Winkle (Littorina littorea), so largely eaten in poor neighbourhoods as a relish at tea, are "nourishing food, very restorative in consumption, and hecticks. being sod in their own sea-water." For consumptive patients they are to be boiled in milk; others may eat them boyled in vinegar, or water and salt." "As an appetizing tit-bit the Whelk is in London King of its Eastern quarters.
Hie then to yonder flamboyant kiosk perambulatory on Phcebus's wheels, where on snow-white platter recline the molluscs, shelled; these, however, touch not. The true gourmet with simple pin coaxes from the involute conch its curly, luscious inhabitant, an implicate, and whirled delight. Add a soupcon of vinaigre, and, paying such reverence as the plat merits, straightway eat! Delight will be yours, and for a prolonged aftermath dreams, more dreams, and yet again more dreams! Not Chambertin, nor St. Estephe, nor yet creamiest Sauterne befits to follow; the one divine and only drink is now dusky Stout, fresh drawn, with silky bubbles brimming atop. Remember, too, the sapient example of tongue-gifted Elia; drink from the pewter, cool, and winking roguishly, yea, shining for very joy at compassing this so fragrant beverage! Fetched from neighbouring hostel by attendant nymph, for customary dole, and drunk amid the heat and glare of East End boulevard, 'tis Jove himself would raise the tankard high, and loud vociferate ' Io, Bacche!' Lift up thy voice then, and praise the East, and be well convinced that you have spent there a spell of a thousand-and-one-nights! The grateful remembrance will linger with you often in the blind regions of the West; the Orient will send memory's swift mercury-heeled messengers to the Occident! You will 'ear the East a callin', and you won't never heed nought else but this".